Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Simpsons and California's Budget Woes

A new semester begins, this time with SJSU students hit with a 30% fee increase and employees forced to take furloughs (resulting in a 10% paycut). With that in mind, I launched the first meeting of "The Simpsons as Social Science," a course I teach for incoming freshmen, with a snip from an episode entitled, "The PTA Disbands" (season six, episode 21).

The episode begins with a field trip to Fort Springfield, a visit marred by the fact that Springfield Elementary is so poor that Principal Skinner can't afford to buy tickets for the children. When Skinner complains about the five-dollar cost, noting that admission was free last year, the ticket seller shrugs and points to the new owner's sign: "Diz-Nee Historical Park -- Sorry, but there's profit to be had").

Skinner compares the sorry lot of Springfield Elementary to the comparative wealth of Shelbyville Elementary, whose students arrive in a fancy bus. Skinner is further peeved when Shelbyville's Principal Valiant (winner of last year's "Princy Award") easily buys tickets for his kids, even leaving a tip: "Here's the admission, plus something for you. See that they get a little extra education, would you?"

While the Shelbyville kids enjoy a bloodily entertaining historical reenactment, the Springfield kids are forced to sneak peaks from behind a fence, before they're caught. With historical reenactionists in hot pursuit, the poor students and mortified faculty flee in disgrace. Springfield Elementary School's budget problems have reached a crisis point.

Edna Krabapple, a long-suffering faculty member, complains to Principal Skinner on the ride home that the school's tight fiscal policy is ruining the students' education. But Skinner can't free up the funds to fix things. The results are serious, particularly when one child who can't run fast enough to escape his Fort Springfield pursuers is left behind in a cloud of bus fumes. Edna blames the administration for this mess: "Because of your penny pinching, we're coming back from a field trip with the fewest children yet." Skinner replies: "God bless the man who invented permission slips."

The stage is set for war between faculty and administration. Teachers bemoan the declining quality of student education; the principal is caught up in his struggles to balance his budget.
Edna Krabapple: "Our demands are very reasonable. By ignoring them you're selling out these children's futures.

Seymour Skinner: "Oh, come on, Edna, we both know these children have no future.

[The noise of the lunchroom ceases; the children sitting around them are shocked.]

Seymour Skinner [chuckling with nervous optimism]: "Prove me wrong, children, Prove me wrong.
Before long, the school shuts down as the teachers go on strike. Eventually Skinner and Krabapple meet for a public debate, but the exchange offers little hope for resolution. The nature of their clash, which collapses from simplistic argumentation to vapid sloganeering to one-word rebuttals and nonverbal gestures, says much about the state of public discourse in Springfield.

As I anticipated, students watching excerpts from the episode were quick to uncover parallels between the cartoon city and the cartoonish antics of decision-makers in California who helped create the real-life mess we face today. We have much to talk about in "The Simpsons as Social Science," and in the Golden State too.

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